This article had better begin with a correction: the Singularity is not boring. On the contrary, the concept of engineering greater-than-human intelligence is one that raises fascinating scientific and philosophical questions. What we think we know about the future, based on our past experiences, could turn out to be radically misguided if the future includes a technological singularity. Greater-than-human intelligence could change everything.
We should exercise caution when speaking of the Singularity. Despite what some people claim, nobody knows when a Singularity is going to happen and nobody knows what consequences will follow. Amidst all these claims, I don’t see people exercising any kind of caution and due ignorance when talking about the Singularity. Instead, I see people using it as a convenient technological fix. And I have a problem with that.
I fully subscribe to the transhumanist dream and the goals the transhumanist movement espouses. Things like engineered negligible senescence, the eradication of poverty through molecular manufacturing and the end of boring work thanks to robots laboring tirelessly on our behalf; these strike me as reasonable expectations. I know of no physical laws forbidding these dreams from being fulfilled. That they have not been fulfilled yet is due entirely to the current state of our own ignorance.
But, just because we can reasonably expect such things to be possible does not mean we should consider them easy, inevitable or both. We should acknowledge the immense technical challenges we face in trying to engineer any one of these scenarios, let alone a glorious future in which all our problems are solved and utopia is achieved. Try pointing this out over at the KurzweilAI.net forums though, and someone will almost certainly reply that no problem will delay the fulfillment of transhuman dreams very long. Why? Because the Singularity will solve them for us.
Israeli-British physicist David Deutsch wrote an essay in April for New Scientist called “Why Science is the Source of All Progress.” In it, he explains what makes a good scientific explanation. He asks us to consider two explanations for why we have seasons. One is that the harvest goddess, Demeter, becomes sad because her daughter Persephone must temporarily depart to Hades; her sadness causes winter. That was the ancient Greek explanation. Another is that the Earth’s axis is tilted relative to the plane of its orbit. This means that, during half the year, the northern hemisphere is tilted toward the sun and the southern hemisphere is tilted away, while the reverse is true for the second half of the year. That is our explanation for why we have winter.
Deutsch points out that both explanations are testable since they could, in principle, be falsified through experiment and observation. In that sense, both are scientific. But, as Deutsch wrote, “their (the Greeks’) underlying explanations are easily varied, myths can accommodate any new experience.” In other words, this explanation can be infinitely adjusted so that it stands up against any falsifying experiment or observation. In the end, it’s “not even wrong.”
The ancient Greeks also gave us the phrase “deus ex machina,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” A deus ex machina makes audiences and readers roll their eyes when they encounter it in a play or a story, and we should likewise roll our eyes when we encounter a deus ex machina being used to resolve all questions regarding the feasibility of achieving transhuman goals within our lifetime. “The Singularity will fix it” is a deus ex machina.
It also turns transhumanism into an infinitely variable explanation. Just like the myth of Demeter, you can continue to believe in the swift and inevitable success of transhuman dreams if you can invoke a godlike power that can fix anything. Hell, you can even posit a total rewrite of the laws of physics, thanks to the Singularity hacking the program that runs the universe. So even if some of our dreams turn out to violate physical laws, there is no reason to abandon faith.
To me, there is something deeply troubling about using the Singularity as a kind of protective barrier against all skepticism regarding the likelihood of achieving transhuman goals within a generation. It is difficult to reason with people who use the Singularity concept in this way, and even harder to have a logical debate with them. They have a deus ex machina to hand that can demolish any argument designed to show that transhuman dreams will not inevitably come true within our lifetime. This kind of reaction takes reasonable, scientific expectations of a brighter future and pushes them dangerously close to being an irrational pseudo-religion. And I find pseudo-religions boring.